800 Pictures of Beauty

The pastor looked out at the audience and said, “We would now like to invite anyone to come up and to speak about Ruth and the impact she had on their lives.”

My friend shifted in her seat, wiped her teary eyes and looked around the church, filled with people who had come to honor and remember her sweet Aunt Ruth who had died after a two year battle with Alzheimer’s. She glanced to her right and saw a woman she didn’t recognize, walking towards the microphone.

The woman fidgeted at the podium, smiled at the audience, and leaned forward saying, “I’m not family, but I still wanted to say something about Ruth.”

She quietly explained that she hadn’t known Ruth for long, but that she would never forget her. Ruth had already lost her ability to speak when they met, but always communicated care and concern with gentle eyes and warm smiles. The woman tilted her head and through tears shared that she learned more about love and marriage by watching Ruth’s husband’s tender, faithful care for Ruth than she had ever learned from another couple.  And she loved how Ruth would sneak candy onto the conveyor belt while her husband would shake his head, smile, and pretend he didn’t see.

My friend sat up straight and thought, “Did she just say conveyor belt?”

Yes. This woman worked as a cashier and regularly helped Ruth and her husband during their daily visits to Wal-Mart. Imagine touching someone so much in the checkout line that they would insist on speaking at your funeral.

I had to know more about this woman named Ruth.

“She was as close to a Saint as anyone I have ever met.” My friend sat across from me, quietly smiling as she thought about her aunt. She explained that you just felt more at peace when you got to spend time with Ruth. Life suddenly wasn’t so hectic, so busy. There was simply time to just be together and enjoy each other. During the holidays, Ruth exuded joy when everyone came to visit. She genuinely wanted to know how each person was doing, and each conversation was marked with gratitude. During large family meals, she never insisted on having a “kid’s table,” but wanted her grandchildren close so that she could see them and ask them questions and clap her hands with laughter when they shared funny stories.

She was a woman of deep faith who really lived it, always willing to serve and to help and to love. Sometimes that meant traveling to another country with a church mission team to build houses or schools, but other times it meant simply caring about those she encountered every day. When Ruth’s daughter decided to move home to New York from Alaska, Ruth and her husband drove to Alaska to help with the move. They drove a rickety old pickup truck, faced long hours, bad weather and rugged conditions and experienced it all with complete joy. For my friend, this was the best way to explain how well her aunt embraced life, regardless of the circumstances: facing the bumpy roads with a smile on her face.

Such was the case when Ruth was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Instead of bitterness or anger or days lost asking why, Ruth accepted her illness and trusted that this was not a surprise to God. Even though the disease cruelly and quickly stole her ability to speak, Ruth never stopped embracing life. When she could no longer speak aloud about beauty and love, she somehow communicated to her husband that she wanted to capture life through photography.

Throughout her life, Ruth always loved flowers. She and her husband had a favorite garden near their home and when she became ill, the garden was where she wanted to spend the majority of her time. Soon, the daily routine became predictable.

Ruth and her husband drove to the garden to spend time enjoying the delightful view, and Ruth directed him to take pictures of specific flowers or plants. This was followed by a drive to Wal-Mart where they developed pictures and bought picture frames and an occasional candy bar.

They spent the afternoon looking at the pictures, choosing the frames, and deciding on a good place to display the daily loveliness. They also asked family to send recent pictures because Ruth wanted to be surrounded by pictures of those she loved.

They repeated this schedule every day.

By the time Ruth died, she had framed over 800 pictures of beauty. Her husband could have easily stopped the process, insisting that they had enough pictures, but after 45 years of loving this beautiful woman, he knew that this mattered. This was Ruth’s heart’s way of fighting the cruel disease of Alzheimer’s. It could steal her ability to speak and to communicate. It could steal her brain’s ability to remain clear and alert, but it would not steal her gift of seeing beauty. It would not cripple her heart. She may have lost her ability to speak, but she never lost her ability to really see what matters.

The cashier at Wal-Mart was changed because of this.

At the funeral, someone shared that Ruth, even when she was ill, had a sense of knowing when someone needed encouragement. One Sunday, she insisted on giving a woman at church a rose. It had been a difficult week for this woman, and Ruth’s unexpected kindness touched her deeply. Anyone who met Ruth was touched by the power of kindness.

As friends and family left the funeral service, each was given a plant and encouraged to pass it along to someone who might need the gift of kindness that day. Ruth would have loved the idea. I love the idea too. Maybe we can all, in honor of Ruth, pass along something beautiful to someone else this week.

I never met Ruth, but when I think of her, I think of Sara Groves’ song Add to the Beauty. I will close with the lyrics and with gratitude to Ruth for all the ways she added to the beauty. (you can listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBhaX0eDBbY)

We come with beautiful secrets
We come with purposes written on our hearts, written on our souls
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
Shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

It comes in small inspirations
It brings redemption to life and work, to our lives and our work
It comes in loving community
It comes in helping a soul find it’s worth, a soul find it’s worth

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
Shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

And this is grace, an invitation to be beautiful
And this is grace, an invitation….